Will climate change make a difference?
Climate change is a top of mind topic with many, and for none so much as those involved in the wine industry. Raising delicate grapevines requires ideal conditions to produce the highest-quality wines, and to survive, growers must learn to adapt or pivot.
In a New York Times article titled “How Climate Change Impacts Wine,” author Eric Asimov notes that grape growers “have been noting profound changes in weather patterns since the 1990s.” Hotter summers, warmer winters, droughts, fires and violent storms are showing an impact on the wine industry.
Some Areas May Thrive, While Others May Not
In some areas of Europe, like Alsace, Burgundy, Barolo, Champagne, and Germany’s Mosel and Rhine Valleys, warmer growing seasons are enabling winemakers to consistently create exceptional wines. This new prosperity has sent land and wine prices soaring, and according to Asimov, have turned winemakers into “global superstars.”
However, “the French Mediterranean coast, Greece and Italy could become too hot for wine growing by the year 2050. And the United States could lose 81% of its best wine-growing land by 2100,” reports the Financial Times.
Adaptive changes to climate change include the following:
Larger growing areas
Areas formerly too cold to effectively grow grapes for fine wine are now seeing their vines thriving. Winemaking is expanding north in the Northern Hemisphere and south in the Southern Hemisphere. As an example, England is now developing a world-class sparkling wine industry, with vineyards scattered along its southern coast where the chalky soils resemble that of France’s Champagne region. Countries as far north as Denmark, Sweden and Norway are also planting vines more adaptable to colder weather. In the Southern Hemisphere, growers are experimenting in Patagonia.
Growers are able to plant at higher elevations than ever before, where the heat lasts for shorter periods and the nights are cooler. This enables the grapes to mature at an even pace for a longer period of time. Some of the highest vineyards in the world lie in northern Argentina at altitudes from 5,000 to 11,000 feet. In Washington State, growers are experimenting at 3,000 feet higher than usual.
Wine grapes are one of the most sensitive crops due to variations in temperature and precipitation, and can only be grown in places supporting the balance of heat and precipitation. Grapevines tend to flourish when planted on southern-facing slopes where they would receive the most sun. Now the problem is how to protect them from the heat. North-facing slopes are coming into demand.
Because of climate change, some growers will become unable to sustain varietals they have been planting for centuries. They will be forced to abandon grapes formerly associated with their region. This is already occurring in the Napa Valley and the Bordeaux region of France—both regions associated with cabernet sauvignon. Additional grapes are being considered.
Because of warmer weather conditions, grape insect pests can live a longer life and range further. Milder winters may not kill off insects or fungi that may harm grapevines.
Climate change has wreaked havoc with weather patterns, raising anything from drought conditions to sudden and violent storms. Smoke from wildfires can also affect a grape’s flavor. Experienced winemakers trusted the seasons and weather patterns to plan their harvests, but now have to learn how to manage conditions. Water or dry days can no longer be taken for granted.
A report given at the 13th Australian Wine Industry Technical Conference by G.V. Jones stated, “Grape growing can become challenging and maybe even impossible. Changes will be evidenced mostly through more rapid plant growth and out-of-balance ripening profiles.”
“In a warmer environment, the grapevine will go through its phenological events more rapidly, resulting in earlier and likely higher sugar ripeness, and while the grower or winemaker is waiting for flavors to develop, the acidity is lost through respiration resulting in unbalanced wines without greater after-harvest inputs or adjustments in the winery.”
- In a warm-climate region, with its more consistent temperatures, grapes gently transition with a longer ripening period, but also lose some of their natural acidity, producing more fruity wines with less acidity.
- In cooler-climate regions, the steeper temperature changes between summer and fall preserve acidity, but force the grapes into a longer ripening period, causing a more tart and acidic flavor.
For the highest-quality wines, conditions must include: warm temperatures, no extreme heat, and a low frost damage risk. When impacted by climate changes, winemakers can add color, acid, sugar and flavors in the winery through the inclusion of additional blends of other wine grapes. Lower-quality grapes that produce what is commonly known as “table wine” can be grown across nearly all climate ranges.
The Wine Tourism Industry Impact
Season after season of drought and wildfires has caused a 55% drop in 2020 to California’s wine tourism and a shift is taking place from promoting the destination to protecting the region’s natural resources. Officials there are implementing the Napa Green certification program for vineyards and wineries to become sustainable, responsible, and committed to environmental stewardship and climate action in Napa County. The Napa Green program is one of only four sustainable winegrowing programs nationwide offering the opportunity for comprehensive soil-to-bottle certification in both the vineyard and the winery.
Climate change is real and for those who love wine, there are changes on the horizon. But as an industry that has survived for thousands of years, it will continue to provide high-quality wines for all to enjoy.